LONDON (Reuters) - The doctors and families of patients in a permanent vegetative state will no longer need legal permission to end their treatment, London’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
Judge Jill Black ruled that food and liquid could be removed by medical staff to let patients die without applying to the Court of Protection if both the family and two doctors are in agreement.
The ruling looked at cases of a prolonged disorder of consciousness (PDOC), which encompasses people who are minimally conscious or in a persistently vegetative state following a severe brain injury.
If there is any disagreement in medical opinion, then an application to the Court of Protection can be made, the ruling said.
The court ruling came after a 52-year-old man, known as Mr Y, suffered a severe hypoxic brain injury after a heart attack.
He fell into PDOC and was unable to make further decisions on his wellbeing. The medical team and his family agreed that it was not to his benefit to receive further treatment and the National Health Service sought a declaration in the High Court that clinically assisted nutrition and hydration could be withdrawn in such cases without legal repercussions.
The High Court granted that declaration, which was appealed by Mr Y’s solicitor. Although Mr Y died in the intervening period, the importance of issues raised by the case meant the appeal went ahead.
Supreme Court Justice Jill Black dismissed the appeal, saying Mr Y’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights had not been breached.
“If there is agreement upon what is in the best interests of the patient, the patient may be treated in accordance with that agreement without application to the court,” Black said in the ruling.
Tom Lax, a senior solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the judgement, which mentions the costs to the health service of court cases, threatened to reduce legal and moral concerns to political ones.
“I accept that running all such decisions through the Court of Protection might not be the best way to make them, but that does not mean the lack of oversight set down as acceptable in this judgement is enough to safeguard people,” he said in a statement.
Reporting by Maria Gabriel, editing by Alistair Smout and Janet Lawrence